Why COVID-19 is leading to greater employee burnout, and how to prevent it

Recent research suggests around seven in 10 workers are suffering burnout in the wake of COVID with the biggest issue being the lack of separation between work and private lives (thanks to remote working). Add to that the fact that pay cuts have been common, workloads have increased, paid work hours have decreased and general feelings of anxiety – when it comes to the pandemic; burnout seems inevitable.

What are the causes of burnout?

Pandemics lead to change and change can often lead to stress. Stress of course could easily lead to burnout. Unfortunately, without appropriate stress management, it can affect our physical, mental, and emotional health. Therefore, recognising the signs and how to manage this kind of stress is crucial to avoid burnout, which is now officially recognised as a diagnosable condition, costing billions a year. The World Health Organisation reports burnout refers specifically to phenomena in an occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.

Home-schooling, caring for sick relatives and worrying about job security are all common causes of stress during these unprecedented times. Add to this the lack of separation between work life and private life and it is not surprising to see burnout increasing and productivity dipping. Research demonstrates burnt out employees have decreased situational awareness. Being less aware of your surroundings can increase workplace accidents (environmental), cause conflict (social) and decrease productivity (profit) – each which has an impact on your bottom triple line. 

Signs that indicate your employees are burnt out

There are many signs, but they are not all easy to spot. You may see anxiety, depression, anger, and irritability amongst staff or within yourself. Other symptoms include a weakened immune response, trouble sleeping or sleeping more, low energy, high blood pressure, a variety of aches and pains or even cardiovascular impacts. 

In a work environment you will see decreased productivity, difficulties concentrating, sudden emotional outbreaks, resentment and feelings of disillusionment or cynicism. You may also note an increase in sick days or higher employee turnover.

What to do to manage employee burnout

As a leader you have a responsibility to protect your team from burnout. It should be an increased priority, especially now that we’re dealing with the difficulties of living through a pandemic. You cannot expect your employees to be ‘always on’. To help you employees manage burnout consider the following:

Out of hours emails

If you tend to respond to emails outside of standard business hours, make sure you have a written line indicating you do not expect the receiver to work at those hours. Keep in mind that employees mostly want to perform, and the culture is set by management on what the expectations are. It is your job to set a good example for employees to follow.

Manage workloads and regularly check in

Manage your employees’ workload. No two workers are the same – some may be more flexible and others more detailed orientated. Adjust tasks to workers and their skill sets. The most important tip to do this effectively is to communicate regularly and actively listen. Checking in with employees is crucial. Regularly! You do not want to become a micromanager, but not checking in will leave employees feeling despondent and not cared for. Not checking in means you can also miss identifying potential issues within your team.

Support beyond workplace

Check in on a more personal basis as well, especially now during the pandemic when workers are working increased hours from home. Do they have the appropriate office furniture required? Do they have support from other key staff that they may not have direct access to, due to social distancing? Are they suffering additional stress due to a partner losing their job? Provide support beyond the workplace and make sure employees are aware of the support available to them.

Flexibility at work

Most organisations have by now mastered the art of managing teams remotely or at a minimum, found a video conferencing tool that is effective for their teams. Resist the temptation to make work tactical through strict processes, rules and procedures. For example, if you let your employee have a longer lunch and have time for a healthy walk, they may come up with a creative solution to a work-related problem and be more productive when they get back to completing their tasks, even if that is outside of normal working hours.

Look after you, lead by example

As a manager it is easy to get distracted by the strategy and big picture, and get overwhelmed yourself. Keep an eye on yourself and lead by example, but don’t be afraid to share your experiences with staff. People connect through stories.

During this pandemic, be the leader who creates a ‘non-burnout’ culture by providing a supportive, empathetic work environment where productivity can rise, staff can thrive, and innovation comes alive.


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